The Torch not the Sceptre

The reason I went into publishing is simple – nobody was around, in 1958, to publish me. So I published myself. Half a dozen others – friends – also found this expedient attractive. So we formed a group, a nice consanguineous côterie. We wrote prefaces to each other’s books, pointing out excellences, and performed similar familial kindnesses in other ways as well. We believed, with Helen Gardner, that criticism should flash the torch, not wield the sceptre. We gave unto ourselves a name – WRITERS WORKSHOP – and adopted unto ourselves a detailed 1000-word “constitution” drafted by our precisest-minded member, Deb Kumar Das.

Apart from Deb Kumar Das, who is now a “College Coordinator” (whatever that fancy phrase means) in Seattle, there were seven others. I possess an aging, brittle sheet of letter paper – “Lovely Bond”, Made in Sweden, circa 1958 – with all the ringleaders’ names elegantly printed in saffron and their addresses in black, in a semicircle on the left to suggest the curving leaf of the WRITERS WORKSHOP logo: Sasthibrata Chakravarti (this was before he renounced his family name and inheritance and started free-lancing for his breadand-brata); Anita Desai (her story “Grandmother” opens the first issue of the WRITERS WORKSHOP bimonthly of creative writing The Miscellany in 1960); William Hull (whose transcreations of the Latin poet appeared as one of the first batch of six WRITERS WORKSHOP publications, The Catullus of William Hull); P. Lal (listed as “Secretary”); Jai Ratan (whose first book, one of the six, was a collection of stories, The Angry Goddess); Pradip Sen (a vo1ume of poems, And Then the Sun); and Kewlian Sio (short stories, A Small World). Recollections dim over a 25-year span, but I think it was William Hull who sparked it off. He was visiting at Patna University as a Fulbright professor from Hofstra College in Long Island, New York. I met him at a pan-Indian writers’ seminar in Madras. He had a mischievous, loving gleam in his eyes – a parfait Southern gentleman, you don’t make them any finer, a North Carolina Narada.

I was very young then, and not unmischievous myself, especially in the company of “important” people and mediocrities who have greatness thrust upon them. The incident I can recall vividly. An eminent Indian literary critic was expounding that morning on the “indissolubility” of form and content (he preferred to call it “manner” and “matter”). His vehemence was positively alarming and not in consonance with the liberalities of literary humanism; indeed, the ferocity of his conviction smacked of academic fanaticism. Here was a chance not to be missed. I scribbled a well-known stanza by a British poet, changing one word, and passed the note to Hull, who was sitting on my left, asking him to identify the substituted word. Instead of doing so, he slipped me the complete two-line text of a much-anthologized poem by Ezra Pound, asking me to spot the word he had substituted. Arré! I couldn’t. It was embarrassing. Was I that ignorant? Or could it be that Hull had actually improved on Pound?

We played this scribble-and-guess game for the full hour of the learned critic’s exposition of the organic fusion of style and statement in literature. Having baffled ourselves, we presented our bafflement during the question period to the august and noble assembly of creative writers and pundits. It was a deep learning experience for all. Over lunch Hull remarked that he had heard of a group of writers who, under my initiative, met every Sunday morning at my Lake Gardens residence, and would I be interested in a poetry reading by him when he visited Calcutta?

I would. The result: The Catullus of William Hull. The main professed aim of WRITERS WORKSHOP is to demonstrate that “English has proved its ability, as a language to play a creative role in Indian literature. The task it has set itself is that of defining and substantiating this role by discussion and diffusion of creative writing from India and other parts of the world. Its publishing focuses on English creative and transcreative work by Indians, or such work as deals with, or is inspired by or has relevance for Indian life and culture.”

How utterly and fortuitously splendid! Hull seemed to show us exactly what could and should be done to make the ancient Indian classics, specially the Sanskrit masterpieces, come alive for the 20th-century reader. For what good is a classic that does not have significance for me now?

The world, alas, is not easily taken by storm. We printed 500 copies of Catullus. We sold exactly three in the first year of its appearance, 1960. Two of these three were bought from a stall opposite the Lighthouse Cinema in Calcutta by J. B. S. Haldane, who was then with the Indian Statistical Institute, B. T. Road, Calcutta. On May 13, 1960, he wrote a long and charming letter congratulating Hull ”on attempting the impossible.” He added, “American is a young language, as English was 400 years ago, and Latin was when Catullus wrote.” He “suspected” that parts of Catullus ”would slip almost effortlessly into Sanskrit.” He concluded by listing 10 printer’s devils.

What impressed Haldane was the fluency with which Hull could shift from the pure adjectiveless and nounless economy of Poem LXXXV:

I hate. And I love.

Maybe you wonder how I stand it.

I don’t know. But I do.

I feel it. I live with it.

to the graciously orchestrated complexity of Poem LXXVI:

If man is so made that ease of mind, delight,

come from thumbing through memories of


of integrity, of word given and well-kept,

of no oath sworn by God to God’s disgrace,

then a life, Catullus, long and blessed in delight

has accrued you from your course in this love.


The ideal of such effortless transcreation still haunts and inspires us; the typos still plague us. WRITERS WORKSHOP now has 800 separate titles on its list, mostly poetry, fiction, drama and criticism by young and unknown Indian writers who prefer, for various reasons, to use English as a creative medium. All the books are printed on a minuscule hand-operated press, the size of a small desk, and the total mechanical paraphernalia including the typefaces, cost less than Rs. 6,000. A small-is-beautiful operation that provides eminently satisfying thrills and excitements, using the home as an office, a filing cabinet as a secretary, correcting proofs oneself, and finding friends who will let out any spare vacant space cheaply for godown and storage use, one can bring out a book at one-fifth the cost it would take if one went to a Linotype press. It’s a good way to survive in a decade of rocketing printing costs. It certainly is the only way to introduce new young writers, in elegant editions bound in handloomed sari cloth by Tulamiah Mohiuddin.

I have a theory that every human being has a higher and a lower ego: the higher for grand achieving, the lower for underplayed yet not insignificant success. One of the major highs of running a small publishing house is the chance, one gets of pampering one’s lower ego. I am often asked about the criteria employed for the selection of manuscripts. I have three. One: a writer sends in material that’s so impossibly good that it’s ten years ahead of its time – and there are very few commercial publishers who would think of investing in such first-rate postdated creativity. Two: the work shows promise, and the writer might stop writing altogether if not discreetly encouraged through publishing. Three: the manuscript appeals to my taste, such as it is, and I enjoy bringing out stuff that I like; it’s like introducing a talented friend to strangers, though some may well wonder where the talent lies. To each his taste. A good motto to go by is: Publish the moderns and read the ancients. Trust ruthless Time. And be prepared for surprises. You never really know how a new book will get talked about – or not get talked about. We published Nissim Ezekiel’s The Unfinished Man in 1960 and The Exact Name in 1965. Who would have guessed, 25 years ago, that he would get the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1984? Impossible to imagine in 1971, when we brought out Jayanta Mahapatra’s book of poems Svayamvara, that 10 years later he would have chosen for the same award or that Kamala Das, whose The Descendants appeared in 1967, would have a full page devoted to her in the weekly newsmagazine Time of December 27,1975. (Or that Vikram Seth, whose first book of poems Mappings appeared from WW in 1981, would go ahead and receive the Sahitya Akademi award for The Golden Gate some years later.)

Many are called, few chosen. It remains a source of mystery to me why some have not received the acclaim they deserve.

Lawrence Bantleman, for instance: four books of poems and a play by this Calcuttan Anglo-Indian who captures exquisitely the lyrical nuances of life on and around Free School Street. Kewlian Sio, of Chinese-Sikkimese parents: two books of stories, A Small World and Dragons – perfect cameos of sharply observed detail of subject and feeling. Padma Hejmadi, most of her stories appeared first in The New Yorker; yet the excellence of her craft in Coigns of Vantage, the book we published  in 1972, went largely unnoticed. Nasirna Aziz: a book of poems One More, and a play, No Metaphor, Remember; yet who appreciated her scalpel-clear simplicity and honest, disturbing insights into Hindu-Muslim relationships?

Enough. Literature is no better or worse than life. Publishing is like watching a world drama: it’s total theatre all the way. Everything – from neglect to limelight, from faith to perfidy – is present. One stands in awed wonder before the variety and wizardry of literature – and of the profound and sometimes silly people who make it. It’s really a lesson in humility.


This is a rose world.

Here meaning is in fragrances.

And life is the careful delivery of leaf….

This is my friend’s rose garden.

You shall come here as bird or leaf.

Here are afternoon pleasures:

Tea before sunset, and conversation,

Squirrels and homing sparrows.

The meaning of this rose world communicates.

Syllables more splendid than life.

– P. Lal (Span, 1984)